After last week’s remarkable season premiere of Game of Thrones, “The Night Lands” is a bit of a letdown. Show runners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss scripted both episodes, so comparisons are especially tempting. Additionally, both “The North Remembers” and “The Night Lands” have a thematic focus that none of last season’s episodes had. For example, in “The Night Lands,” Theon Greyjoy (Alfie Allen) visits the Iron Islands in order to propose an alliance between the Starks and Theon’s estranged father. The fact that Theon’s homecoming takes place so much sooner in the TV version of Game of Thrones than it does in the timeline of George R. R. Martin’s novels suggests that Benioff and Weiss are trying to unite their dense narrative’s various competing subplots for the sake of making a more unified adaptation.
But “The Night Lands” isn’t as thematically cogent as last week’s episode, though it’s rewarding to see Benioff and Weiss continue to follow the example they set in the season premiere. That episode largely concerned the show’s lead protagonists’ use of power. “The Night Lands” expands that conceit considerably: What do characters do when they don’t have to help anyone but themselves? Where “The North Remembers” was about how powerful people exercise their influence, “The Night Lands” is more generally about individual responsibility.
“The Night Lands” begins with a scene where Arya Stark (Maisie Williams) talks back to a trio of prisoners. They treat her disrespectfully, but because they’re locked up, Arya knows that she doesn’t need to be kind to them. So she taunts them and walks off. Gendry (Joe Dempsie), Arya’s traveling companion and possibly the only bastard child of Robert Baratheon left alive after Joffrey ordered all of their deaths in last week’s episode, tells Arya that he thinks she’s crazy for acting so impudently. Survival is key and, as he says, you don’t know when the shoe will be on the other foot.
Practically everybody anticipates a reversal of fortunes that will deprive them of their power over other people. So when they make their plans, characters generally have to feel secure in the knowledge that the people in their respective corners will remain loyal. This makes a lot of sense given how antsy everyone in the show has become after the execution of Ned Stark last season. If someone as upright and as powerful as Ned can be murdered, who’s safe? That thought crosses Tyrion Lannister’s (Peter Dinklage) mind after Varys (Conleth Hill) threatens to tell Tywin Lannister (Charles Dance) that Tyrion has knowingly disobeyed Tywin by sneaking Tyrion’s lover, Shae (Sibel Kekilli), back with him to King’s Landing. Tyrion tells Varys that he’s not stupid and won’t be betrayed as easily as Ned was.
Varys’s response is striking: He insists that he doesn’t care what Tyrion thinks. Varys reasons that he’ll always be around since he isn’t ethically beholden or bound by honor to any one faction. Here, Varys only reinforces his reputation as a scavenger. Which is interesting since that’s not the impression we were left with at the end of season one. Contrary to what Tyrion has assumed, Varys did try to help save Ned’s life. But Ned refused Varys’s help. So here, when confronted with the equally self-interested Tyrion, Varys shows his true colors: He only helps people for altruism’s sake when it suits him.
It’s also curious that later in “The Night Lands,” Benioff and Weiss juxtapose Varys with Petyr “Littlefinger” Baelish (Aidan Gillen), now shown officiating at the brothel where he holds all of his secret meetings. Littlefinger takes Ros (Esmé Bianco), one of the prostitutes, aside and comforts her by saying about her brusque client: “Sometimes those with the most power have the least grace.” But right after that, he also warns her that he doesn’t like “bad investments.” So while Varys uses an idle threat to form an alliance, Littlefinger reinforces a bond with a threat. Varys is fortifying his position while Littlefinger is throwing his weight around to show that he’s in charge now. Littlefinger doesn’t even try to hide the fact that he’s currently got a modicum of power and is scheming to get more. That’s the slight but vital difference between him and a fellow schemer like Varys.
Varys and Littlefinger’s respective stories also reflect on the actions of the Lannisters. Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey) is similar to Varys in that she doesn’t care how she exercises her power. At the moment, Cersei’s in control, and that’s all that matters to her. By contrast, Tyrion is similar to Varys in that he paranoiacally anticipates a political sea change. Tyrion steels himself for inevitable change by replacing the current head of the Gold Cloaks with Bronn (Jerome Flynn).
But that doesn’t mean Tyrion has any illusions about Bronn’s loyalty. He asks Bronn if he’d hesitate to murder a newborn child for Tyrion “without hesitation.” Bronn cheekily but truthfully responds that he’d hesitate, but only long enough to ask how much money he’d get for doing it. For Bronn, helping people, obeying orders, and exercising power over other people is all a matter of personal losses and gains, checks and balances. But for Tyrion, taking advantage of Bronn’s mercenary nature is a way of ensuring that he can eventually exercise his own power over other people and not be later betrayed for doing so.
But what does that say about Arya, who treated the prisoners like gnats? Isn’t she just like Cersei except on a smaller scale? And is Tyrion like Davos (Liam Cunningham), the right-minded smuggler that makes a pact with a sex-obsessed colleague who wants to “fuck” Cersei in exchange for helping Stannis Baratheon (Stephen Dillane) gain control of the Iron Throne?
“The Night Lands” sets up a lot of parallels between disparate characters. This makes sense as the episode’s about the complications that ensue after everyone realizes that they have some amount of power at their disposal. For instance, Benioff and Weiss draw an unusual connection between Theon, who confuses his sister for a common prostitute, and Samwell Tarly (John Bradley), who comes to the aid of one of Craster’s (Robert Pugh) wives. Benioff and Weiss don’t really develop this parallel. But Sam is shown to be jonesing for some action just as much as Theon is.
Sam talks with some fellow horndog men of the Night’s Watch about having sex. Soon after this, he helps Craster’s wife, who’s pretty frightened by Ghost, Jon Snow’s (Kit Harington) direwolf. The fact that Sam respects Craster’s wife enough to not lay hands on her makes her think Sam’s different (i.e., better) than the other men she’s met.
So while Theon just wants sex and gets rebuffed for assuming he can take what he wants, Sam knows that he can’t do so and is rewarded with a kind remark from an appreciative woman. This moment stands out as it’s one of few scenes in “The Night Lands” where a man doesn’t just strip a woman and bed her. Benioff and Weiss definitely draw a contrast between Theon and Samwell in “The Night Lands.” But that contrast isn’t as salient as it should be.